The most important guest missing from the 8th annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture was Tutu himself. While the Archbishop still appeared on late versions of the evening’s programme as scheduled to give thanks, Tutu’s health did not allow for him to be present in person.
Tutu, 87, who celebrated his birthday on Sunday, instead watched proceedings via video link from his hospital bed, where he is receiving treatment for a “recurring infection”, but is said to be in good spirits.
Paying tribute to the Arch in his absence was President Cyril Ramaphosa, who wryly explained that Tutu had not given him much choice in accepting the invitation to deliver the lecture.
If he refused, Ramaphosa said, Tutu had threatened to stop praying for him. It was not a chance he could take.
That was a rare moment of levity from Ramaphosa, who was in a generally solemn mood on Monday evening while addressing the audience at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre.
Those looking for evidence that Ramaphosa had Nene-shaped issues on his mind would have found it in the president’s apparent distraction before he gave his speech. Seated on a chair on the stage, Ramaphosa appeared to be busily engaging with his iPad during the half-hour or so until it was his time to speak.
The lecture Ramaphosa had been invited to give has a standing annual theme of peace and reconciliation: the two goals to which Desmond Tutu has devoted his life.
Yet Ramaphosa’s address was far more forceful than one might have expected for a talk on that topic – and far less fuzzy.
The well-heeled audience – who had given Ramaphosa two separate standing ovations before he even began to speak – appeared slightly taken aback when the President used his platform to deliver a robust response to those who doubt the need for accelerated land reform and economic transformation.
“We cannot speak of true freedom when 10% of the population has more wealth than the remaining 90% combined,” Ramaphosa said.
“We will not be able to say we have achieved freedom for all our people until we have corrected the historical injustice of accumulation by a minority on the basis of dispossession of the majority.”
On the topic of land, the President avoided mention of the specific policy of expropriation without compensation, but was unambiguous in his message as to the necessity of rapid land reform at this point in history.
Deviating from his prepared speech, he said:
“This issue of land has reared its head in a way where some people think it has been manufactured by politicians and political parties. No. Its time had come. Our people want their freedom to have meaning.”
Ramaphosa’s particular focus on land will invite speculation that his address served at least partially as a response to former president Thabo Mbeki’s stinging criticism of the ANC’s handling of the land question.
One of Mbeki’s accusations was that the ANC has fundamentally departed from the vision for the party laid out in the Freedom Charter. Again going off-script, Ramaphosa presented an alternative interpretation.
”All we ever want is that the land must be shared among those who work it and those who need it. They need it now.”
The president elaborated that the initial focus of the government’s plans for land redistribution will be the group of around 200,000 emerging black farmers.
“Those are the 200,000 farmers who are yearning for the land to be shared because they are the ones who work the land, and we want to focus on them,” Ramaphosa said.
The central thesis of his address was that peace in South Africa is impossible as long as economic inequality, landlessness, crime and discrimination continue to flourish.
“We need to fundamentally transform gender relations in our country,” said Ramaphosa, receiving a more enthusiastic burst of applause from the audience than had been evoked by his comments on land.
“We cannot tolerate anything diminishing the equal rights and equal worth of the women of our country.”
There were moments at which one was reminded just how different Ramaphosa is to his predecessor – when, for instance, he condemned discrimination against “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people” as “demeaning our common humanity”.
And then there were a few moments which prompted Zuma flashbacks: as when Ramaphosa called for a moment of “moral regeneration” to end the scourge of South African crime.
At the end of his address Ramaphosa turned his focus to the 87-year-old birthday boy, reminiscing about the images of “Archbishop Tutu in his robes of service” that are embedded in the national consciousness.
“He coined the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ not out of sentiment but out of experience, and out of the expectation that our nation would become one and remain one in perpetuity,” Ramaphosa said.
“Let us continue building the unity of our nation, conscious always of the fact that there will be no peace without equality and no reconciliation without justice.”
It was a strong speech, with a message of which Tutu would undoubtedly have approved. But the Arch’s absence robbed the evening of a certain magic which Ramaphosa could not hope to replace. That alone was a reminder of how deeply Desmond Tutu will be missed when he leaves us for good. DM
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